CEO Summit: Diesel USA Fuels Up in Down Economy

While the economy has slowed down many firms, for Diesel it’s full speed ahead.

“Playing it safe is not part of our culture,” said Steve Birkhold, CEO of Diesel USA. “We see opportunities, we are opening stores. … [Founder] Renzo Rosso doesn’t really care about the economy. We are very aggressive in our expansion.”

And after taking its footwear production back in-house in 2007, the category is on the top of Diesel’s agenda.

“We see tremendous growth in emerging [segments], and footwear is one of our largest opportunities to grow in the U.S.,” Birkhold said. The U.S. division has revamped its distribution to represent a wider range of footwear. For example, as part of a bigger move into the upscale arena, high-end styles debuted under the Diesel Black Gold label for spring.

“We are one of the only brands that can sell a $95 sneaker at Journeys and $500 shoe at Neiman Marcus,” said Birkhold. (While 70 percent of Diesel’s overall sales are through its own retail and 30 percent via wholesale, footwear sales are the opposite.)

The brand also is ramping up on a broader scale. Diesel’s largest store, Diesel Planet on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, bowed in February.

All of Diesel’s initiatives are supported by a series of edgy marketing campaigns.

“We try to integrate irony and humor into everything we do,” Birkhold said between video clips of retro disco dancing and provocative comedy sketches.

In addition, Diesel has a big presence both at hipster-havens such as the South by Southwest music festival and the Cannes Film Festival. It also sponsored its own series of parties last year around the world to celebrate its 30th anniversary. “It’s all driven off creative,” Birkhold said, “and events are a huge part.”

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